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Cameron McCollum, Director of the Sudreau Global Justice Institute

Cameron McCollum, Director, SGJI

About the Episode

We discuss access to justice in developing countries; the current state of affairs in specific countries in Africa and opportunities for improvement.

The Sudreau Global Justice Institute ("SGJI") is an international human rights organization NGO based out of Pepperdine University. SGJI partners with governments around the world to advance the rule of law and provide access to justice to vulnerable populations. They believe that a healthy justice system is key to eradicating systemic suffering and unlocking a community's potential. A well functioning justice system not only protects the vulnerable, it is also the foundation upon which it becomes possible for all other forms of community development to flourish.

They currently have an active partnership with the Ugandan government to pilot the nation's first Public Defender's Office, and they continue to train and provide strategic assistance in Uganda's implementation of plea bargaining into its criminal justice system. In addition, they have a team in Accra, Ghana where they are working alongside the Ghanian government and the U.S. State Department to further similar plea bargaining and access to justice initiatives.

About Cameron McCollum

Cameron McCollum is an attorney and passionate advocate for human rights and access to justice around the world. Cameron joined the Pepperdine staff as the Director of the Sudreau Global Justice Institute in the Fall of 2019. Prior to his role as SGJI's Director, Cameron practiced law in Dallas, Texas as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis. He received his BBA in Business from Baylor University, and his J.D. from Pepperdine Caruso Law magna cum laude. 

Transcript of the Conversation between Cameron McCollum and Alberto Lidji

Alberto Lidji: Welcome on to The Do One Better Podcast today.

Cameron McCollum: Thank you, Alberto, it's a pleasure to be here.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Well, it's good to see you. You're out there in California. I'm here in London. Why don't we kick off by finding out a little bit about your organization? What's the Sudreau Global Justice Institute all about?

Cameron McCollum: Absolutely. The Sudreau Global Justice Institute is an international non-profit based out of Pepperdine University and we work with governments around the world to promote human rights and particularly promote access to justice for vulnerable populations.

So as you mentioned, we work in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda and a few other countries as well. And so the Institute started pretty organically, I would say, in the mid 2000s, doing general human rights, advocacy work and things of that nature, but really took off in about 2010 when Pepperdine's is now president actually, uh, Jim Gash was a professor at the law school and began traveling to Uganda to, uh, help out posts... I don't know if you remember in the late 2000s... the LRA, Joseph Kony and Northern Uganda civil war, and a bunch of lawyers just started traveling there. And a partnership was formed between the Ugandan government, Uganda judiciary, and Pepperdine University where we were helping them on a couple of legal reforms.

And Jim began traveling to Uganda and on one trip, in 2010 I believe, was actually visiting a remand home, which in Uganda is basically a juvenile detention facility. And Jim came across a young guy's story named Henry, and Henry was in the remand home... And you walk into these remand homes and obviously the conditions are not great.

You've got kids, you know, locked up in these small spaces for long periods of time. And so it's obviously a heartbreaking. But Jim got to hear Henry's story and come to find out that... you know, Henry had been sitting in this remand home for quite some time with, you know, no access to his family, no access to an attorney.

And Jim starts hearing his story. And, you know, it turns out that Henry has essentially been falsely accused of two murders. And he has nobody there to fight for him. And that sort of, uh, or obviously impacted Jim and, you know, he's like, I'm a lawyer... I live in the United States, what can I do?

So he ended up, you know, sort of making a radical decision, to do something about it. And Jim moved to Uganda for about six months in 2012, and really took up Henry's case. So he was actually the first American lawyer ever given special permission by the Uganda High Court to represent a Ugandan citizen in court.

And so Jim represented Henry in his case, and won and had the charges dropped. So from that point forward... I mean, obviously Henry's life was changed. It's such a beautiful story. Actually, we made a documentary about this a couple of years ago called 'Remand' that sort of highlights our work and Henry's story. ... but Henry today has a family and is a practising doctor, and it's just this beautiful story of redemption and the power of advocacy, because if... you know, Jim or someone hadn't had intervened, he would have statistically, likely stayed in prison for several more years, without any sort of advocacy and who knows what would have happened when his trial date came.

Again, these are two crimes which he did not commit. That was sort of the genesis really of what the Sudreau Global Justice Institute has become today. And, during his six months there, Jim helped the government, refine the speed at which juvenile cases were handled.

So he helped them change their policy a little bit to, to provide quicker access to justice for for youth. And so that was sort of the genesis of the Institute. And we have been in a really deep partnership and friendship with the Ugandan government and judiciary since then.

So we have spent the last decade or so working alongside them to implement broader access to justice initiatives. Just like the one we did for youth back in 2012, but for the entire adult population. And we have continued to do similar projects like that as well.

Alberto Lidji: Fascinating. And tell me a little bit about who works at the Institute; how much time you guys spend in California, how much time you're out there in the field; what does it look like?

Cameron McCollum: As you know, I'm the director of the Institute. I have an assistant director. We have we have an executive director who is a part of the executive team of the university.

So, Jim Gash, as I mentioned, the president, is still very involved... He's very passionate about this work and has this amazing vision to really leverage all the resources of Pepperdine to serve countries around the world as much as we can. And so he still is involved to some extent, obviously he's really busy running the university itself... But I'm the director in the day-to-day operations. We have an assistant director and then we have a director for west Africa based in Ghana, we have a director for east Africa based in Kampala, Uganda. And then in both of those places we employ and are training up local attorneys an advocates.

We hire and train Ugandans and Ghanaians to implement these projects. I personally am based here in Los Angeles and do most of my work from here, but I travel to Africa probably three to four times a year . What we do when we go there is we're typically going into the prisons and actually providing access to justice or providing legal counsel to accused individuals on pretrial detention in prison.

We set up in partnership with Ugandans, we set up court inside the four prison walls and bring justice to the people. We have, staff in country who are there working every day.

Alberto Lidji: What are the main challenges that you're seeing there, and I imagine the challenges may very well be different in Uganda versus Ghana and other countries... but if you had to distill the state of affairs and what are the most pronounced issues that you're trying to address, what would those be?

Cameron McCollum: Yeah, that's a great question. I would say that the umbrella term that I would use is just access to justice in general, which I would define as just the ability of any person, regardless of their status, regardless of their income, to be able to use, or tap into the legal system to defend themselves, not only defend themselves, but to do so in a timely manner ... your ability to, to have a voice.

And the reality is that in many countries around the world, access to meaningful justice is largely non-existent... at least for those who don't have the means to pay for it. And I want to be clear that. We have our own issues here in the West ... obviously access to justice is, is an issue here as well.

If you're in the United States, for example, you know, when you are arrested of a crime... if you can't afford an attorney, you are provided one within a couple of days, and you are provided a public defender. Now a public defender might have 50 cases on their docket at any time.

And if you have in the United States the wealth or the means to pay for a private attorney you are paying for somebody who specializes in what you're needing and you're paying them for the lion's share of their time to focus on your case versus somebody who doesn't have the means who has a public defender, who's stretched way too thin.

So obviously there's still an issue here of equity between you know thos who have the wealth to afford an attorney and those who do not. But the reality in the developing world or in many places... I would actually just call it the majority world... where we're certainly in the minority in the sense of some of the privileges that we have... and so the reality in much of the world is that if you are accused of a crime and you were put in prison and you don't have the ability to afford an attorney you will sit in prison on pretrial detention for, you know... historically, depends on the country.... years. We're not talking weeks or months. We're talking about years. I was actually just on the phone yesterday with the Attorney General's office of another country in West Africa talking about some of these reforms that we're wanting to work on together. And this individual mentioned that in their country, 80% of their entire prison population.... so we're talking tens of thousands of people... 80% are on pretrial detention, meaning that 80% of their prison population has not been convicted of a crime. So it's sitting on pretrial detention and the average wait time to trial in many of these countries, in this country, particular is three to four years.

So if you're accused of a crime, you can't just, you know, call your lawyer and get a hearing. You're going to wait three to four years and in Uganda where we've been working for quite some time now, historically that number was closer to five, six, seven years. So again, we go into these prisons, you know, several times a year, and we were still seeing cases from time to time that were generated back in 2013, 2014, you know, so somebody who hasn't spoken with an attorney, and they'd been in prison for six, seven years and have never spoken to an attorney.

Alberto Lidji: And also, if I read correctly, just not even the opportunity to plead... guilty or otherwise, right?

Cameron McCollum: Correct. That is the, one of the main sort of underlying issues here is, uh, you know, many, many of these countries they don't have, or don't provide the ability to plead... The term we use here, uh, is plea bargain.

And so, you know, you can imagine, I mean, and the United States and many of you know, Western nations, that the number of cases that actually go to trial is very low. I think in the U S it's, something like that. 97% or 98% of all criminal cases are disposed of through some sort of plead... somebody pleading guilty or some sort of deal that happens outside of trial.

And if every case here or in England went to trial, you would imagine there's just there.... I mean, there are thousands and thousands of cases... , that is the sort of reality in many other countries... There's not the ability to plead, so everyone goes to trial.

And so that is, one of the root issues of this case backlog, which is causing that time period we're talking about... that five, six, seven year period as you're just basically waiting for your number to be called because of their case backlog. And so when I'm saying we have helped them with justice sector reforms, that is one of the main things.

So in Uganda, we helped them, we worked alongside them to pass plea bargaining legislation, so that those accused of crimes would be able to plead guilty and it's been wildly effective.

So, I think we just heard for the first time, this last year, that in Uganda, the percentage of... their percentage of people on remand or people on pretrial detention is under 50% for the first time, which is a drastic decrease from what it was 10 years ago. So, plea bargaining is a big piece of it.

And, the important thing to note here is these are often people whose crime, who they have been accused of... the maximum punishment is less than the amount of time than they have already spent in prison. So we run into people every year... every time we go into the prison who you know, maybe stole a loaf of bread for their hungry family, got caught, were arrested, were put in prison and the maximum sentence for their, you know, their crime could be a fine or a couple of weeks, but they've been sitting in prison for two years just because they haven't had the ability just to say, I want to plead guilty and I want to go home. So that is the sort of root issue that we are working to solve.

Alberto Lidji: Following from that also, I imagine, I mean, if you're going to have a trial four or five years after the crime supposedly happened, I imagine memories fade, right?... evidence fades.... people's memories, fade.

Cameron McCollum: Absolutely, yeah, it's a huge issue. You know, after a couple of years, I mean, even less than that, evidence goes stale, witnesses disperse, they move and they move around and so it really causes a difficult situation for people accused of crimes, people who you might be your, uh, corroborating or exonerating witness, all of a sudden five, six years later, can you get a hold?... can you get a hold of them? And if you can't, you're just sort of out of luck.

We are really working to change that. We want to take the average time to trial from, you know, five, six, seven years to one year or less. And we want them to take a really average time to speak to an attorney, which, you know, historically has been the same amount of time it takes to get to trial.... You know, and, and Uganda, their citizens have the constitutional right to an attorney 30 days before trial. And so they are provided an attorney, a pro bono attorney, um, you know, constitutionally like 30 days before trial, I think in practice, it tends to be, you know, a week or two before trial. But that's after you've been sitting in prison for, for three, four, five years. Right. Uh, and so we want to take the average time to speak with an attorney from years to days.

And so that is our current project with the Ugandan government. They are now amazing at plea bargaining. So they do it, you know, they're unbelievable. And our, our new project in partnership with them is helping, uh, to come alongside them to start their first public defender's office.

They have the 30 day constitutional right to an attorney, but there's not, that's all done through pro bono sort of legal aid organizations, where we are looking to help them start an actual public defender's office, such that anybody who's accused of a crime... who's arrested and put into sort of a detention facility will speak with an attorney within you know, 72 hours. And we think if we can accomplish that goal, we will, not only be providing an immense service to people by giving them legal representation immediately, we'll also be able to cut out just the really, really bad unjust cases that we're seeing all the time.

We're going to the prisons and we're in an adult prison and when you're looking at a kid and you're like, you are, you are 15, you are not an adult. Like how, how are you in here? Or, you know, you have been in here for six years and the maximum sentence for your crime is six weeks. How did this happen?

Now that the plea bargaining is available, now we're working to build the defense capacity to really actually advocate for everybody, full stop.

Alberto Lidji: Really, really interesting. Now, if you're looking at trying to shorten the time lag between an accusation and somebody seeking being able to connect with a lawyer ...with a defender... If you're looking to shorten that somebody would say, well, yeah, well, where are you going to get the funds to do that? Something lingering in the back of my head while I was listening to you, is that the cost of keeping somebody incarcerated for a prolonged period of time is not insignificant. Right? I don't know if you've done the math, but do things sort of balance out or at least even possibly work out better financially in terms of a country saying, yup, we'll invest on a public defender's system and hopefully reduce the vast amounts of people we have incarcerated.

Cameron McCollum: Yeah, we are working currently with a, with a PhD economist to sort of model these and I think the numbers show that in the long run it's actually cheaper for them... exactly to your point, you know, housing, feeding, medical care for thousands of people in prisons is expensive. And yes, the startup costs to a public defender's offices is decently high, but we're also... one of the things I would note is we're, we're very conscious of how we're doing things, where we are not by any means trying to copy and paste some sort of system we have in the West, we are trying to bring this general principle that everyone deserves access to justice. Everyone deserves a fair shake. You know,the UN Declaration of Hhuman Rights, Article III, you know, everyone has the right to life, liberty ,security of person; Article IX, no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention.

Like those are the things we think are just bedrock principles..., how it's done... we want it to be done in the most, you know, Ugandan centric., Sustainable way. And so, that is why everything we do, we do it in partnership with local leadership. We're certainly not coming in saying, Hey, this is the model... you have to do it this way. Rather we're saying here's the principles, let's work together as friends and partners to achieve these goals that we, that we all agree are, are worthy of pursuing.

And so, practically the way that sort of looks right now is we work with the Supreme court of Uganda and some of our counterparts... we're designing a system that is sustainable for Uganda right now, and that is taking into account some of their, uh, they have some sort of, uh, I don't know if pro bono bar is the right way to say it, but they have... A year after you graduate law school, where you have to do some service. And so we're trying to use several different resources to create a system that touches everybody entering the system in the most sustainable way.

And so to be clear, we, we are running the pilot project right now. For the public defender project, we're running a pilot project in one district, uh, and now we have gotten the go-ahead from their government... We need to replicate this to about five or six more districts over the next couple of years. And so we do some cost sharing on that, but we're working to raise the funds to do that, to run it as a pilot phase for about three to five years to then take it to parliament and basically say, We've been, we've been running this for five years... this is the data you actually can't afford to not pass this. And so that's our goal... is to really, in five years exit plan, handed off to them and it would be fully Ugandan led, you know, Ugandan funded.

Alberto Lidji: And in terms of the funding right now, how are you seeking your funding? What are, um, how are you getting funding for this?

Cameron McCollum: An amazing woman by the name of Laura Sudreau; she's an alum of the law school. Just a fantastic advocate with a huge heart. She made an amazing donation about four or five years ago to our Institute. That basically, you know, makes up our budget and we're able to provide these services free of charge to these countries.

So, you know, I think a lot of... there's a lot of rural law sort of organizations, many of which, you know, tend to charge for at least some of the trainings or services. And we're just in a really unique position where we don't have to charge for some of those things. You know, we don't have to charge, you know, countries to come in and train their judiciary, train their judges, and those sorts of things. Now, that being said, you know, our budget is maxed out. We can't on our budget run a Ugandan public defender's system. So right now through our own budget, we're, you know, we are able, and with the cost sharing with the Ugandans, we are able to, uh, run the pilot project in a couple of districts, but that's sort of the phase I'm at now... is sort of actively seeking to raise funds to really scale this thing nationwide. And so I would say as an NGO in general, we're in a great position in that we're not necessarily having to, you know, raise funds to keep the lights on, which is a huge, huge deal. But at the same time we have these huge projects and scope and, in Uganda and Ghana, and soon to be, uh, Nigeria as well, where the buy-in is there, we just need the funds to really start scaling things up, which is really exciting. And it's turned my job into, uh, definitely fundraising heavy, which is great. It's exciting to share the vision because I just believe in it so much.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. What's the feedback? What's the feedback so far that you're getting on the ground from those in the justice system, those who represent victims, those who represent, individuals who've been accused; what's the feedback from, the front lines?

Cameron McCollum: The feedback is, you know, just across the board amazing. It's actually one of my favorite things. Part of what we do, I mentioned that I go several times a year, maybe about quarterly to Africa and we bring attorneys. So we bring typically, about 10 attorneys or so, depending on the trip. So we bring, American or whoever attorneys, not, not just Americans, whoever would like to join us... and basically the way it works in the prisons, when we go, you know, we have a team of, uh, we also bring our law students. So obviously being at a law school, we also have a pedagogical sort of purpose where we are, uh, training the next generation of, uh, globally minded advocates for justice. And so yeah, our work actually provides a lot of incredible opportunities for the law students at Pepperdine.

So when we go, we bring, we bring law students, we bring attorneys. So when you enter the prison, if you're a law student, you are working with a lawyer... You're paired with a Ugandan lawyer and a Ugandan law student. So it's all about providing the service, but also this mutual training, mutual learning, where the law students are learning from each other and learning from the Ugandan and American or, you know, Western attorneys.

And so that's just one of my really favorite things is every time every attorney, every law student comes back with, just, their life changed, just the ability to go in and to see, and to serve and partaken. It's really incredible. So they're always just blown away and I'm blown away every time, every time I'm in there, I'm like, whoa... how do, how do we get to do this? Like, this is really meaningful, and really life changing and so feedback is always great ... you know, our Ugandan and Ghanaian advocates are just unbelievable. It's so inspiring to me to hear their vision and their passion for transformation in their own country and providing, you know, justice sector access, for people, it's really inspiring.

Alberto Lidji: It's great to hear you have such a rewarding job, such a rewarding, position to be in. How did you get into all of this? How did you end up where you are today?

Cameron McCollum: Yeah, so coming out of undergrad, I went to Baylor university. And then after, you know, after graduating, I did sort of the entrepreneur thing for a couple of years, real estate startup with, with a couple of friends.

And during that time, I spent a good amount of time overseas and actually a good amount of time in Uganda working, you know, in, uh, basically an orphanage or getting to serve at an orphanage, um, and really just fell in love with, uh, the country, the people. And what's interesting, it's sort of like the time and the, you know, this was 2009, 2010, 2011. So the same time Jim was there... I obviously didn't know Jim at this time, but at the same time, Jim was there, you know, I was there as well. Um, and you know, this is again post Joseph Kony and the north of Uganda, everybody, every family has just been ravaged by what's happening, you know, child soldiers, uh, just really bad situation.

And so it was there really that I think I got the bug for law school. It was, it was great to be there and serve, but there's just this thing in me of like... I want to be able to help them in a more meaningful way, whatever that means, I want to be able to have this skillset to not just serve in that capacity, but also help, you know, pull them out of their circumstance, however, that's possible. And so the bug for law school kind of got in me and then I started doing my research and come to find out, you know, I'm from Dallas, uh, not from California. So come to find out that, uh, Pepperdine is, you know, and do my research, Pepperdine is working with Ugandan government to drive change, um, you know, and, and partnership and friendship, and the model is just amazing. And now, yeah, I would just say back to the model, it's like one of the coolest parts about all of this is that we are great friends with all of our partners. So when we go to Uganda, we're sitting in the homes of these nation's leaders, you know, when they come, they come and visit us often for sort of strategic meetings.

And, you know, I have some of their justices and, you know, top government leaders at my home holding my kids. It's just amazing, you know, friendships. So the model's just awesome. That was sort of the bug of, okay, like Pepperdine is it, like, they're, they're doing this, this seems like a match for my passion.

So I ended up going to law school and, uh, obviously meeting Jim Gash who was sort of the pioneer of the Institute of at least to where it is today and kind of became a mentor to me and would bug him often, uh, you know, saying something to the effect of, Hey, if you ever get tired of this amazing job you have, or, you know, getting to pour into students and getting to pour into... you know, use your skillset to, uh, help people around the world. Like, just let me know. Because I'll be ready after law school, just, you know, that sort of thing. And he was always just I'm sure, just like this kid, you know, uh, but his advice was always, you know, go work at a... Go work at a law firm, get some experience so you have a skill set to offer. So as I did, I ended up going to work at, uh, I was last at Kirkland & Ellis, you know, major international law firm doing, you know, corporate work, but really, uh, Try to do as much pro bono work as I could to sort of feed this appetite. And so I was always, I was curious, going into this, like, is I'm passionate about this other type of work, you know, how, how can I keep my fire, you know, burning for this?

And, um, you know, I, I remember passing the bar exam, starting work, and then there's sort of like a gap between, you know, passing the bar exam and then like finding out when you get it. So, or when you, you know, the results. And so. I started work in September and then, you know, got word in like early November that I passed and then, you know, made a, uh, a date to get sworn in by a judge.

And so I got sworn in like on a Friday in November and ... It was over the weekend... and um, I was down visiting my wife's family and, um, San Antonio and I get, we get an email from a partner in our law firm says.... you know I was based out of Dallas, but we, you know, we were down in San Antonio and the email says, Hey, there's a woman who is in, this immigration detention facility on the southern border of Texas.

She has an emergency appeal on Monday. And it's basically a situation where if she loses this appeal, she's going to be deported and sent back. This is like now Thanksgiving week. And if she wins she's going to get to stay in the States for the duration of the asylum appeal, uh, which is a big deal.

... we need somebody to take this on Monday, is anyone available? And I'm literally, this new associate just gotten sworn into the bar on, on Friday and I sent an email back and I just said you know, I literally just got sworn into the bar on Friday, but. I'm here in San Antonio and I'm willing if you think I can do it.

Uh, and you know, started the exchange... Like we believe in you, you know, got on the call, got some training. So I show up on this court on Monday morning. And get to represent this woman and her child who are in a really hard situation and ended up getting to, you know, win the appeal and it was a great outcome.

But like, from that moment, it was like, literally my first day of actually being an attorney, it was just, was just this reminder of like, okay, this is... Like, this is what I want to do. And so anyway, I spent the next couple of years, um, trying to do as much of that work as I could until, uh, you know, really a couple, a couple of years ago, um, which I think was unexpected from everybody, but the, the president of Pepperdine who had been the president for 20 years, amazing man, Andy Benton retired and then Jim threw his name in the hat and was elected president.

So they were sort of in a pinch of needing someone to come lead the Institute. And they called me and asked if I would be, you know, willing to move back to California to do this, which was a little bit hard. My wife and I have about young kids and both of our families are in Dallas. So there was some sort of know, like this is going to be tough, but I don't think there's ever been a quicker yes. You know, at least in my heart, like, this is what I want to do. So really just a, a dream opportunity. And that's sort of been the journey.

Alberto Lidji: Great story and a great vibe as well. This sounds really cool. Tell me what's that key takeaway you'd love to share with our listeners. What's the key takeaway you'd love for them to keep in mind after the episode?

Cameron McCollum: Yeah, I think the key takeaway is being aware of what's going on around the world beyond our own circumstances. This access to justice, pretrial detention, access to legal counsel issue, is a silent pandemic, just as much as we're seeing the pandemic with COVID and it's very much in front of us, it's a silentpandemic. There are thousands ,upon thousands, upon thousands of people who are sitting in really, really hard spots in prison for crimes they did not commit and don't actually have any way to fight for themselves. They're just waiting. So I think just awareness because these are...

The thing that gets me really excited about this is, is these are solvable problems. You know, there are some bigger issues out there, like, you know, hunger and some of these other things that are just like really, really, really complex, but there's actually some really doable and, um, you know, achievable solutions that will alleviate some of this hurt.

So I really think just awareness and being aware of what's happening and raising your voice makes a huge difference.

Alberto Lidji: Great. Well, Cameron here's to your continued success. And I really wish you the best with the work that you're doing and to bigger and better things!

Cameron McCollum: Well, thank you, Alberto. It's such a pleasure to be on the podcast.


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